Sun, 2021-04-18 01:46

The idea behind setting the grid in Grand Prix racing is simple: after two 15 minute sessions, the rider who sets the fastest lap gets to start from pole position, the other riders ranked in order of their best lap times. Of course, the fact that qualifying is split into two sessions to prevent people using tows to artificially boost their starting positions (more on that later) is already a distortion, as the quickest riders left in Q1 have sometimes posted faster times than those who made it through to Q2.

Sometimes, though, the rules intervene to create an egregious breach of the idea that the rider on pole is the quickest rider on the grid. Riders have laps taken away from them for all sorts of reasons, and the grid is set by those who adhered most strictly to the rules. As Race Direction gets ever more technology at its disposal to help assess infractions of the rules, the breaches it finds look more and more petty and mean-spirited, no matter the intention of the regulations. And sometimes, the choices made by track designers, on where to put the marshal posts and flag stations, can make adhering to the rules nigh on impossible.

And so it happens that the riders responsible for the fastest ever lap and the second fastest ever lap around Portimão will be starting from the fourth row of the grid, while pole and the new outright lap record go to the rider with the third quickest lap of the Circuito do Algarve. Pecco Bagnaia had a truly astonishing lap taken away for not responding to a yellow flag, while Maverick Viñales had his best lap taken away for exceeding track limits.

Both these rules are there for good reasons: yellow flags are waved to warn of danger on the track or in the gravel, such as a fallen rider. The last thing you want is for riders to crash in the same spot as someone already in the gravel, their bikes imperiling the stricken riders and marshals helping to clear them from the gravel traps.

Lessons from history

There have been plenty of examples of the dangers involved, but two spring immediately to mind. The first was when Franco Morbidelli crashed on Silverstone's treacherous wet surface in 2018, his bike flying into the gravel where Tito Rabat was already standing after having just crashed in precisely the same spot. In that case, the problem wasn't that Morbidelli was ignoring a yellow flag, but that conditions were simply unsafe.

The second was Marc Márquez ignoring waved yellows on the approach to Vale at Silverstone in 2013, where Cal Crutchlow had crashed previously. Márquez lost the front and his bike flew through the gravel, scattering marshals out of the way. If it wasn't for the excellent training the RaceSafe marshals who staff British motorcycle racing events (and assist at many overseas races), the outcome could have been much worse. Thanks to the spotter system employed, everyone could get out of the way before Márquez' Honda arrived.

So the yellow flag rules is incredibly important, and is there to avoid real-world consequences. But if riders are to comply with it, then first they have to see the yellow flags. In Pecco Bagnaia's case, he can make a credible argument that it was almost impossible for him to do just that.

What happened was that Miguel Oliveira suffered a crash at Turn 9, and yellow flags were being waved at the marshal post just before that corner. But the marshal post there is on the right-hand side of the track. That is a logical point given that riders are likely to crash on the outside of the left-hander at Turn 9, and marshals need to be able to get to fallen bikes in the gravel trap.

But as you can see from the onboard footage from Bagnaia's Ducati, the Italian is looking to his left, through the corner looking for the right line. He is just starting to hang off the Desmosedici, and entirely focused to his left. Waving flags or using LED light panels may not be enough to catch the attention of a rider chasing a pole record through that part of the track. Replicating LED lights in the riders' sight line on the left seems like a sensible thing to do.

Maverick Viñales' crimes look far more trivial than the infraction committed by Pecco Bagnaia. Race Direction enforce track limits to prevent riders making use of the hard standing on the outside of corners to run a wider line and carry more speed. And as tracks have added more and more hard standing, so enforcing track limits has become a more pressing concern.

Technology encroaches

The first step beyond just watching the standard footage from the Dorna and CCTV cameras was the addition of special cameras watching on the outside at corners particularly prone to see riders try to use the extra space. But that still relied on an element of human judgment, trying to distinguish whether one wheel or both had gone over the edge of the kerbs and touched the green area just beyond.

And so a new tool has been added to Race Direction's arsenal. Pressure sensors have been placed on the outside of certain corners, capable of detecting even the smallest infraction of the rules. The decision is now black and white, with the human element removed.

In the case of Maverick Viñales, that seemed extraordinarily harsh. Viewing the footage and zooming in close (as Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison did) it is almost impossible to see how Viñales might have strayed over the line. Were we still using the old system of cameras, Viñales might have been given the benefit of the doubt. But we aren't, so he wasn't.

Neither Bagnaia nor Viñales were happy to have such outstanding laps taken away, though Bagnaia was a fraction more phlegmatic about the whole affair. The Ducati Lenovo team rider did point out the difficulties posed by the placing of the marshal post. "You come from a downhill, the yellow flag is on the right side and I was already leaning to prepare for the corner on the left side. So it was impossible to see," Bagnaia explained. "Marini, who was behind me, said to me the same. He also didn't see the yellow flag. So it was impossible, but in any case this is the rule and we have to follow it."

Right to reply

Viñales was a good deal angrier, both at having his best lap taken away from him, and from not having any recourse to appeal or discuss the decision with Race Direction or the FIM Stewards' Panel. At first, he didn't believe that his punishment was due to him exceeding track limits.

"Honestly, I thought it was a yellow flag," Viñales told us. "And when I went into the box, they said, 'No, it's because you touched the green', and I said, 'it's impossible, I never touched the green', because I didn't touch it. I mean, I know when I touch the green, and I didn't touch it. Anyway, at the end, these are the rules, and it's one opinion, you can't say anything about it, you can't protest."

When Race Direction first explained the new system to the riders, Viñales was left believing there would be human oversight of any track limits infraction. "Honestly, in the meeting that we had in Qatar, they told us that they are going to review and they are going to check, but at the end, they don't check," he said.

What irked Viñales above all was that riders had no recourse to appeal the decision of the Stewards. He had gone to discuss this with them, but was told the decision was final. "I went there, they were good to show the image, because it's important. But finally, when I saw the image, I told them my opinion more clearly," Viñales said. "You can do nothing. This is the problem. You cannot reply. The decision has been made, and you cannot protest."

A matter of interpretation

Viñales' disappointment seems rooted in a misunderstanding of the rules. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was complaining that if he did exceed track limits, it was with only a small part of the tire. "When I went there to check, most of the tire is inside, and you cannot understand if the rest of the tire is touching the green. It's impossible to understand," the Spaniard said. "For sure it's not fair, because I did not agree. At least not all of the rear tire was on the green, so most of the tire was on track."

The problem is that Race Direction interprets the phrase "exceeding track limits" to include even the tiniest part of a tire going beyond the edge of the kerb. That, after all, is how you trigger a pressure sensor. So even though Viñales' rear tire only overlapped the kerb at Turn 4 by a couple of millimeters at most, it was still enough to trigger the pressure sensor and incur a track limits penalty, which during practice and qualifying means having your lap canceled.

The strangest thing, perhaps, is that Yamaha team manager Maio Meregalli told Italian Sky TV that he didn't think there were any pressure sensors on the outside of Turn 4, due to the requirements of water drainage. That would contradict the ticker under the TV footage put there by the Dorna TV director, which clearly stated that Viñales had been punished because he had triggered the track limits sensors.

In the end, of course, that is irrelevant. Race Direction records track limit violations, and the FIM Stewards punish them, either by canceling the lap time or by handing out long lap penalties in the race. Race Direction recorded an infringement by Viñales, and the Stewards took his lap time away.

Divided opinion

The grid was divided over the penalties for both Viñales and Bagnaia, with arguments on both sides. The yellow flag rule is there to make the sessions safer for riders, Aleix Espargaro pointed out, though he was willing to accept Bagnaia's statement that he hadn't seen the yellow flags. "You cannot go into the brain or eyes of Pecco so I will trust him if he says he couldn't see. But we have rules for safety."

Something similar had happened to him on Friday, Espargaro said. "Yesterday I crashed, in turn 11 I think, a lot of riders closed the throttle. Pecco was one bike in that corner and went wide out of the track when I was in the gravel trying to pick up the bike with the marshals. So the rule is the rule and I think Dorna have to be even more strict because now they are very fast to remove the yellow flag, so if there is a yellow it's because somebody is on the ground and if they crash, you can kill a marshal. So I feel sorry for them because I know they did an incredible lap, but it's very dangerous."

Brad Binder was much more sympathetic to Bagnaia, having suffered the same fate in Qatar. "It’s harsh to say the least," the KTM rider told us. "I think we’ve all had times, especially last year and this year, when we’ve been on a good lap and it’s been taken away due to a yellow flag. It happens several time over a weekend to people regardless of the session. It’s just really unlucky that the super lap gets taken away because there is a flag out."

Valentino Rossi was also sympathetic to Bagnaia, who is a member of Rossi's VR46 Riders Academy. Visibility was a problem, Rossi said, and could be addressed by using light panels rather than just flags. "I think that first of all we need to use the light panel. In Qatar we had the light panels, also here in Portimão," Rossi told the media. "I think the light panel can make the difference because it's very difficult to see the yellow flag, it's quite impossible to see the yellow flag, where the yellow flag was for Pecco because the turn is on the left and you are already on the left part of the bike looking left and the flag is on the right. So it's quite impossible. But this is the rule. The yellow flag is for safety. I don’t know if when Pecco passed Oliveira was still in the gravel or not, but it's like this."

Rules are rules

The three riders were equally divided over Maverick Viñales' track limits infraction, though all agreed that there was little to be done about it. Aleix Espargaro felt that at least the system with pressure sensors gave a much clearer decision than the old system where the Stewards had to judge camera images.

"In the past, it was very difficult for them to understand with three cameras if the bike was touching, but now we have sensors," the Aprilia rider said. "You just need to touch one millimeter to put one gram of weight and the sensor will bleep and the lap is canceled. The technology is there." It was clear to Espargaro that Viñales had not gained any time on that lap. "I also feel sorry for Maverick because in reality he gained nothing, but there is a rule, a limit and you cannot go over."

Valentino Rossi believed that if Viñales had done the same thing last year, he would have gotten away with it. "For the track limits, this year it's a lot more strict because now they put some sensors on the green and the sensors understand if you touch it," Rossi said. "Because looking at Maverick last year, it would be a good lap, because he touched the kerb. But the sensors say like this so everybody needs to stay a little bit more far from the green."

Brad Binder didn't believe it would change the way anyone would ride, however. "Definitely not," the South African said. "You just really hope you don’t touch it on a good lap." He hadn't seen Viñales' lap, but he knew from first hand just how sensitive the system could be. "Sometimes the slightest little thing you don’t feel, the sensors pick up. Like in Qatar, I had that in the first qualifying. The guys said 'hey, you had your lap canceled' and I was convinced I hadn’t. When you watch the video you see it and you might have touched it not enough to realize, but it’s there. The rule is that if you touch the green, then you touch the green. As little or as much it may be then it’s the rules."

To some extent, Fabio Quartararo inheriting pole after Viñales and Bagnaia had their lap times canceled does the state of play in MotoGP more justice than if they had taken the first two positions. In the press conference, the Frenchman tacitly acknowledged that the pole had been gifted to him. "This pole position is not exactly the same as the other ones, but like I said before, the most important was to start from the front row and we achieved our goal."

But he immediately pointed out that he had the race pace to deserve it. "Most of all, the super thing was the pace from this morning with the old tire, also testing the tires in the afternoon," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference. "The pace was great. With used tire this morning I could push a little bit more, but we wanted to be more on the safe side of the tire and was great. I’m so happy about the pace and the job from the team."

He had tried both the hard and the medium rear tire in FP4, and his pace was strong on both. "It looks like both tires are working well. Right now I’m more into the medium, but tomorrow we will see if we will try the hard in the warm up. I’m feeling confident with both tires. I feel like if we go with the hard over the medium, both are great options for the race."

Fast Frenchmen

Though he had used a new medium and a new hard for FP4, his pace was impressive. He was the only rider to dip under 1'40 and into the 1'39s. He did so not just once, however, but repeatedly on both tires, eventually posting a total of 8 laps in the 1'39s. The rest of the field couldn't manage a single lap sub 1'40.

Johann Zarco qualified third on the grid, and he too had very strong pace. On his final run in FP4, he posted a 1'40.073 on a tire with 25 laps, race distance on it. The Frenchman has been strong throughout the weekend at Portimão, and coming off two second places in the first two races and as championship leader, he is bursting with confidence.

Who else looks to have pace? Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira, and Maverick Viñales, to start off with. In FP4, Viñales went out on already very used tires, ending up on the 30th lap of a set of mediums and still posting a 1'40.395. "We have the rhythm, we have everything," Viñales said. "With a used tire I was able to be in 1'40 low, which is a great lap time."

The improvement of the pace was in part down to better grip on the track and the steps forward Yamaha have made with electronics and engine braking, Viñales explained. Honestly, we've been working very hard on the first touch of the gas, because last year, it was a little bit aggressive and we broke traction a lot," the Spaniard told us. "But somehow this year it's a little bit better, we accomplished to be more smooth on the beginning, which gives us a little bit more traction."

The electronics needed to be adjusted for each circuit, but so far, they were working well everywhere, Viñales said. "Depending on the track, it gives us more traction, but for example in Doha, because of the tire, you could put a lot of power from the beginning. So it's something we worked on, this weekend we worked a lot on the engine brake, because finally in Qatar before the race, we did hundreds of laps and the engine brake was clear. But here we worked really hard and the team ended with a good result."

Franco Morbidelli has found the pace he lost in the first two races, but is still not entirely happy. "About the setting we’ve been going up and down, sideways to restore the feeling of last year," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "Actually, to get back that feeling, the bike is different. I don’t know why. Maybe I changed. Maybe something changed. But I don’t want to think about it now the feeling is back now and I can ride something that I know and I don’t want to think too much about it."

The problem was that they other factories had made a big step forward compared to him, Morbidelli explained. "We found that our pace is better than last year, at least in FP4, it was better than last year. The problem is the Ducatis, the Yamahas, especially the Ducatis and the Yamahas, but also the Suzukis, are I think stronger than last year. It’s a hard task to keep up but we will try."

In English, Morbidelli merely hinted at his unhappiness with the current situation, where he finds himself riding a much older Yamaha despite finishing ahead of all three factory-spec Yamahas in 2020. In Italian, he was a bit more blunt about it. "The situation is irritating me, and I can't hide it," he said. "But I always try to stay focused on what I have to do."

Going, going, gone?

But he also alluded to his future, one which may not automatically include the Petronas Yamaha team. "As for my future, VR46 will take care of it, but I will take care of it together with Gianluca," he said referring to the rider manager employed by the VR46 Rider Academy. "I certainly want to secure the best future for myself, both technically and emotionally." With the VR46 team set to step up to expand their current presence to a two-man team in 2022, and rumors of negotiations with Suzuki, Morbidelli may be eyeing his chances outside of Petronas.

Who holds the strongest cards in the race on Sunday? The Yamahas have gotten stronger as the weekend went on, not least because as the grip has improved, they have been able to exploit both their corner speed and their acceleration. Their problem is that there are a brace of Ducatis at the front, with Johann Zarco on the front row, and Jack Miller on the second row. The Ducatis have proved capable of getting lightning starts, and getting past them will not be easy, especially at a track like Portimão.

Then there is the wildcard that is Marc Márquez. The returning Repsol Honda rider showed solid pace in FP4, posting a bunch of low 1'40s on used tires. He also managed to get out of Q1 and make it into Q2, eventually qualifying sixth on the grid after Bagnaia and Viñales had their laps taken away from them.

But the effort had taken a lot out of him. Márquez only did a single run in Q2, having already stressed his recovering arm by having to push in Q1. He shook his arm as he walked to the bike, and pushed and stretched it as he waited. Riding at a consistent pace was doable, but the additional stress of pushing for a very fast lap quickly overloaded the muscles in his arm, the Repsol Honda rider explained.

"I feel worse today than yesterday," Márquez told the media. "This is something that already the doctors and the physios expected, that is a natural thing. They say that tomorrow should be worse but we will see." The humerus in his upper arm that he had fractured last year was fine, it was everything else in the arm which was troubling him. "The most important thing is the bone is good, I don’t have pain there. But the muscles, the fingers, the elbow, the arm pump, is where I’m struggling more now. Today I did my maximum force three times, in FP3, in qualifying 1 and in qualifying 2. But it’s like this and tomorrow we will see for the race."

The biggest problem was the strength he was missing in the right arm. "It’s lack of muscle, power," he said. He couldn't define the difference between his left and right arms, but he was very aware of it. "I cannot say 10% because it’s difficult. But in the gym I’m working with different weights on left and right. I cannot have the same weights on the right arm. Then on the bike this is something that is there. Nearly all the corners are on right at this circuit."

That needed him to adapt his riding, and his team to adapt the bike, Márquez explained. "The main difference is my position on the bike. It’s true that in the left corners I start to feel the front tire like I like. I am playing and I like it. In the right corners, still I’m pushing too much on the brakes. On the brakes, which is where you can play with the front tire, the position of the body is not the correct one. And I cannot load the front and I cannot push with the arm."

Practice and qualifying was one thing, but the race is another, Márquez said. "The question mark is tomorrow in the race... 25 laps. It will be very long! I will say that I’ll try to enjoy it but I won’t enjoy. I will suffer. But this is like this and we already know coming here to Portimao, that now we are more in the real situation with the arm."

How Márquez ended up in sixth place on the grid is a tale unto itself. To make it through from Q1 to Q2, he had latched on to Joan Mir and used him as a reference point, ending up with the best time set behind Mir, the Suzuki Ecstar rider making it through as second fastest in Q1.

Márquez and Mir glossed over the issue in their English debriefs, but were a little more honest when speaking to the Spanish media. "We normally don’t like it if someone is following us in that way," Joan Mir said in English. "But it’s like this. We know Marc always likes to play these types of games. The problem is if we stop then he’ll stop and we can make a dangerous situation. It’s better to push in front and then that’s it."

In Spanish, he had harsher words for Márquez. "We already know that Marc likes to do this to get behind," Mir told Spanish media. "Today he has done it with me and usually he always does it with someone, to get behind them and play this game. For this in Moto3 they penalize. Not him and here they do not penalize. But I did my thing and he has not made me nervous at all. He started a lot further ahead, he cut off, got behind, he annoyed me on the first lap of my time attack, because he started slow, I ran into him halfway down the track and I have already lost my lap. Then I started to push, he took advantage of my tow. In Moto3 they penalize you for this and surely in Moto2 as well, but in MotoGP not yet."

Márquez denied he had slowed Mir down, but he admitted to seeking a tow from the Spaniard. "At no time have I slowed down more than normal. I think the first lap I did in Q1 was two or three seconds slower than a normal time. In the end, I saved my skin, which is what I had to do."

He accepted that seeking a tow is behavior which is normally frowned upon – including by Márquez himself – but the Repsol Honda rider admitted it was the only way he could be sure of getting through to Q2. "I know that it is not done or that it makes a rider angry when you do it, but they have done it to me many times when I was fully fit," Márquez said. "Now I needed it, I have done the whole weekend riding and riding alone. In Q1 I needed to know where I was losing and I followed another bike, and I chose the World Champion, the one who was riding the best in Q1." He could have avoided criticism by following his brother Alex, he said. "I could have chosen my brother too, who would have kept quiet," Márquez laughed. "I have chosen the best. I have come out of box, we have met on track and I have done it."

In Q2, Márquez did the same again, this time with Mir's Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins. Rins was a little more relaxed about having Márquez follow him. "As you said, Marc was waiting for us on the second tire. We went together on the pit lane at 60kph. We are like horses waiting for the race," Rins joked. "Marc is so intelligent doing those things. Little by little I’m taking this experience. I was playing a bit his game. The most important was we were respecting each other in the time. In end I’m happy, I was pushing hard along in front and I did the lap time."

The fact that Marc Márquez needed a tow to get through to Q2 tells us that he is still not completely back to full fitness. And the fact that he grabbed a tow when he needed to also tells us that he isn't afraid to do what needs to be done. That he should make sure to get a tow from Joan Mir, the reigning champion, is a sign that Márquez is as ruthless as ever, and never misses a chance to try to get into the heads of his rivals.

What surprised me was the meekness with which Márquez' return was greed by his rivals. You would think that anyone with pretensions of the 2021 MotoGP title - Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo, Jack Miller – would have made sure that Márquez knew that he was joining them on track and not the other way around. Yet none of them sought the Repsol Honda rider out during practice, and showed him a wheel, cut off his line, followed him around. Nobody let him know he was no longer the boss, and if he wanted to reclaim his spot on top of of the anthill, he would have to go through them.

Marc Márquez has a reputation for physically intimidating his rivals. During practice at Portimão, his rivals had the ideal opportunity to return the favor, at a time when Márquez was at his psychologically most fragile. Not taking advantage of that seems like a missed opportunity.

There is always the race, of course. Márquez' best hope of survival may be to try to latch on to a fast rider, and try to follow them home to score as many points as possible. Using them as a reference makes it that little bit easier to hustle around the Portimão circuit, and conserve energy for the next race at Jerez in two weeks time. There is still a lot of the season left.

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Sat, 2021-04-17 00:34

It was hardly ideal circumstances to make a return to the toughest class in motorcycle racing after more than eight months without riding a bike. Overnight rain left the track covered in damp patches, making the surface treacherous and unpredictable. But that didn't deter Marc Márquez: though he wasn't the first out of the pits in FP1, he was on track soon enough. And he was fast soon enough too, ending the morning session as third quickest, just a quarter of a second slower than Maverick Viñales.

Drawing conclusions from times which are 2.5 seconds off the race lap record and 3.5 seconds off the best pole time is a little premature. But Márquez was fast again in FP2, in much drier and consistent conditions. In the second session, Pecco Bagnaia's best lap was just a hundredth off Miguel Oliveira's race record, and Marc Márquez was within half a second of Bagnaia, ending his first day back on a MotoGP in sixth position, and having booked a provisional spot in Q2. Mission very much accomplished for the Repsol Honda rider.

More important than all that, perhaps, was the massive grin on Marc Márquez' face as he sat in the pits. MotoGP riders are used to having cameras around them in the pits, Dorna trying to capture their reactions. But knowing cameras are there means that riders behave unnaturally, forcing a media-friendly smile whenever the cameras are on them. Marc Márquez is no stranger to this.

But not on Friday at Portimão. The man beamed as he took off his helmet after he returned to the pits. He looked happy and relaxed, the weight of seven seasons competing in MotoGP falling from his shoulders. And the weight of a year lost to injury falling away, Márquez finally confirming to himself that he was still capable of doing the thing that he has dedicated his life to. And that he still loved.

Even his rivals were touched by just how genuine and real that smile had been. "For me it made me smile when I saw him smiling this morning in the garage, because you know how much this sport means to him and what it means to all of us," Jack Miller told us. "It’s the thing we love and what we want to do and when you cannot do it for nine months then it’s not an easy thing, especially with all the rehab and recovery he’s had to do. To see him back out there doing what he loves and what he’s fantastic at makes us all happy that he’s there and it will elevate all of our levels."

While fans and media raved about how quickly Márquez had gotten up to speed, his rivals were entirely unsurprised. "I had a bet with my guys that he would be top three in the first session and he was third! I expected him to be super strong," Brad Binder said.

Jack Miller felt the same. "I expected it," the Australian told us. "I mean he’s been here testing. OK, it was with the superbike but he’s been riding. We all know how extremely talented this guy is and the things he does on a motorcycle: just watch the session. You see him do some things and you think ‘how did he pull that off?!’ Even today, and I think he was riding with some margin."

Expecting the best of the best

Aleix Espargaro went one step further. It was hard to be impressed by Márquez' results on his first day back after a long lay off when we are talking about the best rider in the world, the Aprilia rider explained. When someone is that good, being surprised would be to deny the truth of his extraordinary talent.

"For me he's the best rider in history," Espargaro said, and had examples to back that claim up. "Last year, the last lap he did with this bike in Jerez, he was on completely another level. Super faster than the rest. And yes, he’s back after a lot of months, but with the same bike, with very similar tires, same team, after a lot of time riding the same bike. So what were you guys expecting? For him to finish 20th? No, I don’t. For me it’s Marc Márquez again." He was Marc Márquez when he was carted off to hospital, so it would be foolish to expect anyone other than Marc Márquez to turn up at Portimão when he could finally ride a MotoGP machine again.

It certainly looked like Marc Márquez on the #93 Repsol Honda. He pushed and bullied his RC213V around the Portimão circuit in pursuit of a time that would take him to the sixth spot on the timesheets. The rear wheel hopped, the front tire squashed into the tarmac, both tires sliding at the very limit of adhesion, the chassis protesting as Márquez tried to tie it into knots wrestling it from one side to another.

If anyone had any doubts that Márquez would be willing to push to the ragged edge of motorcycle physics, the final few laps in FP2 should disabuse them of any such notion. Márquez got too hot into Turn 1 – a common error at the Portimão circuit – and ran deep and wide into the runoff area, before regrouping to take another shot.

On his final lap, he nailed the first corner, and pushed on through the first sector, down the long left at Turn 5, then on up the hill flicking left for Turn 6. As he hustled the bike over to the right hand side, the rear stepped out, the back of his RC213V fishtailing at something approaching maximum lean angle. Márquez' body language was of a man who had expected nothing else, pushing on through Turn 7 and on up again to Turn 8. That lap would move him up from fourteenth to sixth, and into Q2. Marc Márquez had put it all on the line, and emerged on the other side triumphant. Just like the old days.

Mistakes were made

It may have looked like the old Marc Márquez, but afterward, the Repsol Honda rider confessed to feeling rusty. "I think from Turn 6 to 7, on that change of direction, my head says now it's time to go in for turn 7, but the body didn't follow what I want!" Márquez said. "Then I just slide a little bit; it was a save, but I created a slide to finish the turn because it was the last lap and I didn't give up the lap. Things that of course with more laps on the track I will improve."

"The thing is that, yeah the last lap was a little bit crazy, I didn't like the last lap but I had a nice save," he said. "But it's my riding style. It's true that with the new tire I'm struggling more than with a used tire. With the used tire the bike becomes softer, the lap times are slower and then I feel much more comfortable. But with new tires everything is more stiff."

He was still coming to terms with the 2021 Honda RC213V, Márquez explained, and trying to feel his way back again. He was missing feeling with the bike, and that made setting objectives for the weekend rather difficult. "Still, I don’t know the target because I don’t understand how I ride the bike. It's strange to explain, but I understand that I'm riding the bike and I'm concentrated and I know where I need to brake but I don’t really feel. I just follow when I'm riding the bike, but I don’t really feel the limit, the bike, to setup the bike. I'm with the base of Stefan Bradl. Now tomorrow we will start to change a bit, but for that reason I don’t know which target."

That isn't the only concern Marc Márquez has. His arm was passed fit, both by his personal doctors (the most important approval) and by the circuit doctors. But the bone being strong enough is one thing, having the strength and muscle mass to cope with the rigors of riding a MotoGP at full speed for 25 laps is something else altogether. You can train all you like, but riding a MotoGP bike reaches the muscles other bikes simply cannot reach.

"It's true that the main question mark for me, the speed is there, so it's more how the arm will react during the weekend and how I will get up tomorrow," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Because if the power of the muscles goes, like the stress of the muscles will be more then I will have less power and then I will need to change a little bit the riding style. Everything will depend on my physical condition, because today was the first day. Everything was fresh. Tomorrow I know that, because I already feel, I will be more tired and the muscles will struggle a little bit more."

Finding strength

The problem for Márquez is that Portimão is a physically demanding track, and when you are not at 100%, that can be an issue. Alex Rins and Pecco Bagnaia, two riders who arrived at Portimão last year still living with the aftermath of injury, found that out to their cost. Though for Rins, it was only once he got to ride his Suzuki GSX-RR at the Portuguese circuit after a winter to recover from the shoulder issue he suffered in the crash at the first race at Jerez that he realized what the problem had actually been.

"The thing I am most happy about is my feeling with the bike," Rins told us. "Last year, we struggled a lot and I didn't know why, but today I understood why. Because still last year, last race, I was at 100% but not enough power in my body, not enough strength. Today I was able to brake really hard, I was able to be more consistent than last year. So for this reason I'm feeling more strong on the bike."

"I think it comes from the shoulder injury," the Suzuki Ecstar rider explained. "Austria is similar to this layout, a lot of right corners, and you know, for example in Valencia, where we raced before we raced here, it's more left than right. Here you have corner 1, 2, 3, 7 9... It's more demanding." Having a winter to recover and train had made a huge difference. "I just recovered my shoulder more. I get more muscle on the shoulder, and thanks to this I was able to be more constant. I remember last year, I couldn't do more than three laps on the same lap time."

Pecco Bagnaia's experience echoed that of Alex Rins. "Last year has been really difficult after my injury and the operation," the factory Ducati rider said, referring to the leg he broke in 2020. "In the first races I was good in my physical condition. I was not feeling so tired during the race. In the last part of season it was difficult to remain fast during the weekend, during the race. I was tired in the last part of the season, and this year everything is different."

Bagnaia topped the timesheets, ahead of Fabio Quartararo, the two Suzukis of Joan Mir and Alex Rins, his factory Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller, and the returning Marc Márquez. But Bagnaia's pace on used tires looks a tenth or so off that of the best rider. That is clearly Fabio Quartararo, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider managing a sub-1'41 lap with a tire with half race distance on it.

The Frenchman was very happy at the end of FP2, a stark contrast to the disaster of 2020, when he had managed a lowly fourteenth place finish. "For me mentally, it's different," Quartararo told us. "Mentally, last year I arrived in a mood like, two crashes in Valencia, the bike was doing bad, and I arrived here with the same mentality, and that was wrong. And right now I'm just off from a victory from Qatar, and I feel like everything is good."

"What I feel is like, first of all, mentally I'm stronger and I feel like I'm complaining less," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "And this is helping, I'm more thinking about my riding style than the bike, this is the first thing. And then I feel like the bike has the same feeling as Qatar, where the bike was turning a bit better, and it feels a little bit like 2019 chassis. So this is a really positive point and I feel like this is already a big step for us."

Behind Quartararo, there were a group of riders who were all capable of running a 1'41.0 on used tires. Pecco Bagnaia was one of them, but Suzuki's Alex Rins and Repsol rider Marc Márquez was another. All three posted 1'41.0s on tires with around half race distance on.

But there are a couple of riders who are well under the radar, despite having very strong pace. Unsurprisingly, both were on the podium in 2020, Miguel Oliveira dominating the weekend, Franco Morbidelli ending up third. On Friday, neither rider appeared to make much of an impression, at least in terms of outright lap times.

Oliveira had at least managed to squeak through to Q2, having finished Friday in ninth overall. But the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider had struggled to get the soft rear tire to work, and consequently, his one-off lap time was a little disappointing. "I expected a bit more after I had good pace with the used medium rear," Oliveira told us. "I expected a bit more with the soft tire, but it turns out that the soft tire is a bit tricky for us to understand at the moment, and unfortunately with the front we don’t have enough support with the hard tire that we feel is too soft for us.

Despite his struggles with the soft rear, on used tires, Oliveira was quick. He posted a lap of 1'41.0 on a used medium rear with 9 laps on the tire, then followed that up with a 1'41.1 and a 1'41.2.

Dark horse

But Franco Morbidelli's pace is arguably even more convincing than even Fabio Quartararo's. Where the other MotoGP riders fitted a soft rear to chase a lap time at the end of FP2, the Petronas Yamaha rider did no such thing. Instead, he ran the entire session with a single set of medium tires, front and rear.

His initial run of 15 laps was nothing to write home about, running in the mid to high 1'41s. But on his second run, Morbidelli was impressive, posting a 1'41.2, a 1'41.1, and another 1'41.1 on tires with nearly full race distance on them. He hadn't tried to post a quick lap, and so finished FP2 down in 19th. But Morbidelli clearly had some kind of pace.

"I would say that today was a positive day for us," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We started and the feeling wasn’t so good. But we went better through the day, especially this afternoon. I’m quite happy. For sure the position is what it is. But tomorrow we will focus more on the time attack and try and make a better hot lap. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, I had a good feeling from today."

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Wed, 2021-04-14 15:45

Four months after getting off the Ducati with no contracts signed for 2021, Andrea Dovizioso is riding again. The Italian has spent the past three days testing the Aprilia RS-GP at a private test at Jerez, sharing the track with Yamaha, KTM, and Honda, in between the sessions for the MotoE class.

On Wednesday afternoon, the final day of Dovizioso's test with Aprilia, the Italian spoke to the media about the test, his motivation for testing the RS-GP, his plans for the immediate future, and what he thought of the test so far. He was very cagey in his responses, not wanting to give away too much, but reading between the lines he still had plenty to say.

He did not want to enter into detail about how the bike felt, insisting that the first thing he had to do was to find the right riding position before he could be comfortable trying to push the bike to its limit. "You know, when you change the bike after 8 years, it's a big change, so the first thing is the position on the bike. That is the main point," Dovizioso said.

Being comfortable wasn't just about how he felt on the bike, but also finding the best position to get he most out of the machine, the Italian explained. "It takes time, because it's related to being comfortable on the bike, but also you have to understand which is the best position for you and which is the best position for the bike. Because every bike has a different characteristic, so we spent a lot of time on that, and it was impossible to fix these things in three days."

The weather on the final day brought that work to a premature end. "Unfortunately, today there is a lot of wind and we are not able to ride. We did some laps in the morning, but not that much, unfortunately," Dovizioso said. But he had enjoyed riding something other than the Ducati.."It's very nice, from a rider's side, to try a different bike, because every rider would like to try every bike in MotoGP, just to have a feeling, to understand a bit more from what you saw on the TV or on the track. So it was very nice and emotional, because as I said before, 8 years with a different bike, so it was really nice."

When asked directly about the pros and cons of the bike, Dovizioso was a little evasive. "Well, it's a bit difficult to answer, because you can feel immediately the difference to what you used to ride in the past, but to understand the details is very difficult, because you have to push really hard and you have to be comfortable on the bike to understand a lot of details," the Italian said. "I think every MotoGP rider is able to be fast and quite close to the fastest riders, but to be there and fighting for an important lap time or position is a different story. And to do that you need the right position on the bike. That takes time. So I have some ideas, but I don't think everything is clear."

This was to be expected, Dovizioso explained, given the level in MotoGP at the moment. "This is normal, because it takes time to push the bike to the limit, and to feel comfortable on the bike. But I'm speaking about the position, not about how the bike worked. And the position, especially in MotoGP, is even more important than the other championships, because you have to be very precise in the way you ride, and the bike is stiff, the tires are stiff, everything is very stiff and you have to be very precise. And the position affects the way you ride a lot."

For that reason, he didn't want to say too much at the moment, Dovizioso told us. "So I think it's too early for me to enter too much into the details, so I don't think it's a good idea to explain to the media. So like every bike, it has its positive and negative things, so this is normal. But I had a really good feeling."

The Italian was also clear on why he decided to accept Aprilia's offer of a test. "It's because my passion is still for MotoGP, and I would like to race next year," he said. "So I think it was smart to be on track, and I'm really happy because Aprilia gave me the possibility to do that, and in the right way. So I'm really happy about that, and I think it's positive in any case, whether I will race next year or not. The possibility to ride a MotoGP bike is always nice, and to be able to do it in a professional way, not just ride, is what I would like to do, is in the way I want to do it. So I wasn't able to say no, and everything was organized in the right way. So I think it was smart to do it."

The next steps were to test the bike again at Mugello, Dovizioso told us. "Next, I think we will do another test, because we want to work a bit more on the position on the bike, and that's the key to working on some other details. That takes time, so I think we will organize another test. Maybe it will be in Mugello in one month, more or less, and that is the plan." Aprilia announced that the Italian will ride the RS-GP at Mugello, on May 11th and 12th.

Dovizioso explicitly rejected the idea of replacing an injured rider, however, explaining that he only wanted to race if it was part of a structured, well put together project. "Normally, everything I'm doing, I'm doing in a clear way, in a good way. So I don't want to just make something like that," the Italian told us. That had been the reason to turn down a number of offers at the end of 2020. "I didn't take some options last year for that reason, as you know, so this is not my target. So in this moment, I'm completely open, because I'm living this year in this way, about everything. I'm enjoying my life with different things, and I'm still focused to try to see my future. I'm completely open, but in this moment, what we have on the table is just the next test in Mugello."

Although Jerez is commonly used for testing, it has its limitations when it comes to testing a MotoGP bike. But it had still been extremely useful from Dovizioso's perspective. "Jerez can be a good track to test on one side. Not the best, but at the end, when you change bikes, it takes time. So it's not too important which track you are at. Because first you have to create the right situation, and it takes time. It's impossible in one test to fix those things," the Italian said.

He hoped to learn more at Mugello, not least because Aprilia will have had time to produce the parts he needs to give him a better riding position. "To be able to be in Mugello is really nice, because Mugello is a completely different track than Jerez. It's a really nice track, and after one month, I think Aprilia is able to make some changes for my position on the bike, and I would be very interested to see if can be more comfortable."

Having new parts and a more comfortable riding position would be an important step in helping to evaluate and improve the RS-GP, Dovizioso explained. "As I said before, if you want to push really hard, you have to look at very small details on a MotoGP bike. And to see that and to understand clearly everything, you need to feel comfortable. Until you are in that situation, I think it's stupid to try to push somewhere."

That was one reason why Dovizioso didn't want to discuss lap times, he said (the other being that Aprilia will have forbidden him to). "I don't think it's too intelligent to speak about the lap times, because when you are not feeling 100% on your position on the bike, it's not important," the Italian told us. "As I told you before, the speed of MotoGP riders, MotoGP riders can be fast with any bike very quickly, the gap is small. But this is not the point. Especially if you look at the race, everybody is within one second, so this is not the point. So to be on top of the positions, you need different things."

Despite avoiding giving a direct answer to the lap time question, Dovizioso did manage to let something slip about it. "Well, I don't want to speak too much about the details, also because as I said before, I can have for sure some feeling and feedback, but until you ride in the way you want, it's not too related to the lap time, because lap time, it wasn't too bad," the Italian said.

He reiterated that what was important was having the right position on the bike, to be comfortable enough to test the limits of the machine, and be confident in how it would respond. That was more important than a single lap time. "It's more about how much you push and how much you can stay on the limit of the bike. Because when you don't feel that comfortable on the position, you are not able to brake, stay on the limit the entire braking, enter the corner, and exit. So you have to do that to understand every detail about the bike. So as I said before, there are for sure some things really nice, and some things have to be better, but everybody felt like that."

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Mon, 2021-04-12 22:21

Can Marc Márquez win the championship this year? Has he left his return too late to catch up? How fast will he be on his return to MotoGP at Portimão? The answer to all of these burning questions is "we don't know", but that doesn't stop us from asking them. And from trying to make our best guess at what might have happened by the end of the year.

The best place to start to answer these questions is the past. We don't know how Marc Márquez will perform in the future, but we do know what he has done in the past. And by examining his past results, we can extrapolate in the hope of getting a glimpse of the future.

You also need something to compare Márquez' performance against. So I have taken the points scored by Marc Márquez in every season he has competed in MotoGP – 2013-2019, as crashing out of one race in 2020 is not particularly instructive – and calculated the average points per race, and what that would work out to if he were to score that average over the 17 races which (provisionally, at least) remain of the 2021 season. Points have been averaged for each of his seven seasons in MotoGP, as well as over his entire career.


To put that into perspective, I have also done the same for Andrea Dovizioso's 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, the Italian's best years in MotoGP, where he finished second on the Ducati behind Marc Márquez. I have used Joan Mir's stats from his championship winning season in 2020. I have added in the scores of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi for 2015, the two riders who finished ahead of Márquez that season.

I have also extrapolated the results of the two opening races of 2021, and added those in for good measure. That is certainly a stretch, given the nature of the Qatar circuit and opening rounds. But it can be a useful yardstick for what Márquez will have to aim for.

Starting off with the average points for each season, it is astonishing just how strong Márquez has been in the seven full seasons he has competed in MotoGP. In his 128 MotoGP starts, Márquez has amassed a grand total of 2275 points, an average of 17.8 points per race. Put another way, Marc Márquez' average finishing position is better than third.

Rider Season Races Champ pos Points Avg points
Marc Márquez 2019 19 1 420 22.1
Marc Márquez 2014 18 1 362 20.1
Jorge Lorenzo 2013 17 2 330 19.4
Marc Márquez 2013 18 1 334 18.6
Jorge Lorenzo 2015 18 1 330 18.3
Valentino Rossi 2015 18 2 325 18.1
Marc Márquez 2018 18 1 321 17.8
Marc Márquez 2013-2020 128   2275 17.8
Marc Márquez 2017 18 1 298 16.6
Marc Márquez 2016 18 1 298 16.6
Valentino Rossi 2014 18 2 295 16.4
Andrea Dovizioso 2017 18 2 261 14.5
Andrea Dovizioso 2019 19 2 269 14.2
Andrea Dovizioso 2018 18 2 245 13.6
Marc Márquez 2015 18 3 242 13.4
Joan Mir 2020 14 1 171 12.2
Marc Márquez 2020 1   0 0

In terms of points averages for the seasons he has raced, Márquez has three of the four best average points per race, with only Jorge Lorenzo in 2013 getting close. Notably, that was Márquez' rookie season, in which he just beat Lorenzo to the championship by just four points. The only other riders in the top ten averages are Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo in 2015, who fought for the title in the year Márquez missed out.

What happens if you add in the average points scores from the first two races in 2021 and assume they will continue for the rest of the season? Apart from the fact that this is an entirely unreasonable assumption – Qatar is a strange track, the riders and teams had 11 days in total at the Losail circuit, and conditions were such that neither the KTMs nor the Hondas really had a front tire which suited their bikes – it still adds some interesting context.

In this theoretical case, Marc Márquez' 2019 and 2014 seasons still have the highest average points scored, with 22.1 and 20.1 respectively, but Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco comes in third, the Frenchman having scored two second places at Qatar, and now leading the championship. Two second places is 40 points, for an average of 20 points per race.

Jorge Lorenzo has the fourth highest average from his 2013 season in this scenario, the Spaniard scoring a higher average than Márquez that year, but losing out on total points after missing the Sachsenring race due to breaking his collarbone for the second race in succession. Unlike at Assen two weeks' previously, Lorenzo chose not to fly to Barcelona to have surgery to fix his collarbone and come back and try to race. The zero points form that race were canceled out by Márquez' disqualification from the Phillip Island round, when the Repsol Honda rider's team failed to bring him in for a compulsory pit stop to change tires after the Australian circuit had been resurfaced, and Bridgestone found the tires it had brought were unable to cope with the stresses of the much faster circuit.

Rider Season Races Champ pos Points Avg points
Marc Márquez 2019 19 1 420 22.1
Marc Márquez 2014 18 1 362 20.1
Johann Zarco 2021 2 1 40 20.0
Jorge Lorenzo 2013 17 2 330 19.4
Marc Márquez 2013 18 1 334 18.6
Jorge Lorenzo 2015 18 1 330 18.3
Valentino Rossi 2015 18 2 325 18.1
Fabio Quartararo 2021 2 2 36 18.0
Maverick Viñales 2021 2 3 36 18.0
Marc Márquez 2018 18 1 321 17.8
Marc Márquez 2013-2020 128   2275 17.8
Marc Márquez 2017 18 1 298 16.6
Marc Márquez 2016 18 1 298 16.6
Valentino Rossi 2014 18 2 295 16.4
Andrea Dovizioso 2017 18 2 261 14.5
Andrea Dovizioso 2019 19 2 269 14.2
Andrea Dovizioso 2018 18 2 245 13.6
Marc Márquez 2015 18 3 242 13.4
Francesco Bagnaia 2021 2 4 26 13.0
Joan Mir 2020 14 1 171 12.2
Alex Rins 2021 2 5 23 11.5
Joan Mir 2021 2 6 22 11.0
Marc Márquez 2020 1   0 0

Behind Marc Márquez' 2013 season follows the 2015 averages for Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Only then do we get to two more averages from 2021, Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo both having scored an average of 18 points from the first two races. Those 18 points are only a fraction more than Marc Márquez' points average from his 2018 season, as well as his average points haul from every one of the 128 MotoGP races the Repsol Honda rider has competed in.

You have to look a long way down the rankings before you get to the next rider score from 2021. Past the rest of Marc Márquez' season averages, as well as Valentino Rossi's average points haul from 2014, when he finished runner up to Márquez. In 19th overall sits Pecco Bagnaia, who has an average of 13 points from two races. Behind Bagnaia is Joan Mir's average from his championship winning 2020 season, which he won with a mere 12.2 points per race on average.

What if we plug all these numbers into a formula to calculate a predicted (and I use that term very lightly indeed) final points tally for the 2021 season? If we take the average of points scored so far, and multiply those by the total of 19 races scheduled for 2021 (if all goes ahead as planned of course) for the riders who have raced so far this year, and then take the average points for Marc Márquez and the other high-scoring riders from previous years, and multiply those by 17 (the races remaining in 2021), we get a slightly different picture.

Rider Season Champ pos 2021 Points Avg points Theoretical score
Johann Zarco 2021 1 40 20.0 380.0
Marc Márquez 2019 1 0 22.1 375.8
Fabio Quartararo 2021 2 36 18.0 342.0
Maverick Viñales 2021 3 36 18.0 342.0
Marc Márquez 2014 1 0 20.1 341.9
Jorge Lorenzo 2013 2 0 19.4 330.0
Marc Márquez 2013 1 0 18.6 315.4
Jorge Lorenzo 2015 1 0 18.3 311.7
Valentino Rossi 2015 2 0 18.1 306.9
Marc Márquez 2018 1 0 17.8 303.2
Marc Márquez 2013-2020   0 17.8 302.1
Marc Márquez 2017 1 0 16.6 281.4
Marc Márquez 2016 1 0 16.6 281.4
Valentino Rossi 2014 2 0 16.4 278.6
Francesco Bagnaia 2021 4 26 13.0 247.0
Andrea Dovizioso 2017 2 0 14.5 246.5
Andrea Dovizioso 2019 2 0 14.2 240.7
Andrea Dovizioso 2018 2 0 13.6 231.4
Joan Mir 2020 1 22 12.2 229.6
Marc Márquez 2015 3 0 13.4 228.6
Alex Rins 2021 5 23 11.5 218.5
Joan Mir 2021 6 22 11.0 209.0

On this basis, Johann Zarco would be champion, with a total of 380 points. Whether the Pramac Ducati rider can maintain his form such that he finishes second in every race for the rest of the year (or at least averages 20 points over the remaining 17 races) is a very big question, especially given the breadth and strength of the MotoGP field.

Looking behind Zarco, we start to get a sense of what Marc Márquez might be capable of in 2021. If he can match his 2019 average – another tough ask, given that extraordinary season and the fact he is just coming back from a year away from racing – then he would score 376 points. Most years, that would be more than enough to win the title.

If Márquez were to match his 2014 points average – the year in which he won 13 races – then he would end 2021 with a total of 342 points. That is almost identical to the projected scores for the Monster Energy Yamaha duo of Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo. In a normal year, the Yamaha riders' average of 18 points per race might be just enough to win a title: the champion's average points haul per race over the past 20 seasons has been 19.1 points.

Only six times previously has the champion averaged 18 points or fewer per race: Valentino Rossi in 2009, Marc Márquez in the three season from 2016-2018, Nicky Hayden's epic 2006 title, and Joan Mir's thrilling 2020 season.

Taking Marc Márquez' career points average of 17.8 points per race for the remaining 17 races would see the Repsol Honda rider end the season with 302 points. That could possibly be enough for the Spaniard to take the title: it was more than his own points totals in 2016 and 2017, and more than Nicky Hayden's total of 252 points from 17 races, which was enough to secure the title in 2006.

Crystal balls

Is any of this meaningful? There are so many confounding factors that it makes predicting how 2021 will play out pretty much impossible. For a start, there is the fact that the 2021 MotoGP field is tighter than it has ever been before, as witnessed by the fact that the second Qatar race produced the closest top 15 in history, with less than 9 seconds between winner Fabio Quartararo and Miguel Oliveira in 15th.

If 14th place finisher Stefan Bradl had been one tenth a second faster per lap, he would have crossed the line in seventh, 4.3 seconds behind Quartararo, and ahead of Joan Mir. If sixth place Pecco Bagnaia had been a tenth faster per lap, he would have finished second, 0.4 seconds behind Quartararo. If Maverick Viñales had been a tenth a lap faster, he would have won the race just ahead of his Yamaha teammate, rather than crossing the line in fifth.

Then there's the fact that the first two races are totally unrepresentative. Neither the Hondas nor the KTMs performed up to expectations, as the soft front tire was too soft for them to be competitive, and the weird conditions in Qatar meant they didn't have a full and proper understanding of the medium front.

Jack Miller had a shocking couple of races, the first one because of an issue with his rear tire, the second after a clash with Joan Mir. The reigning champion never really found his feet in Qatar, though he had a strong first race, and a tire issue in the second. Surprise star of 2020 Franco Morbidelli had a disastrous first race, lost all his confidence in his setup, then went back to a setup from the beginning of 2020 in search of some confidence in his bike.

Then there's the wildcards: is the Aprilia really that much better, and can Aleix Espargaro establish himself at the front? How strong will Pol Espargaro be on the Repsol Honda? Is Jorge Martin's performance at the second race in Qatar a harbinger of an exceptional rookie season in 2021, or just a fluke due to circumstances? All of these factors will have a major influence on the points distribution, and suggest that scoring points consistently has never been more difficult.

The great unknown

Finally, of course, there is the big question itself. Just how good is Marc Márquez? How much speed has he lost in his year away from racing? Will the fear of crashing affect him, either in terms of outright speed, or being a little more gun-shy in battle? Will he hold a little in reserve, or will he be just as fierce and fearless as he was in the past? Can he get on with the 2021 Honda RC213V, and the 2021 Michelins, which are so very close to the 2020 Michelins which spat him off at Jerez?

This is the great unknown, and we can only speculate. But after this weekend, we may have the first glimpse of where Marc Márquez and the rest of the MotoGP field stands, and a slightly better idea of how the season might play out.

Finally, more for fun and the sake of completeness than anything else, I have included the average points per season for every MotoGP/500cc champion since 2001, as well as for the most successful season for Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, and Valentino Rossi. The figures here are almost impossible to compare; they span four different types of motorcycle (500cc two strokes, 990cc four strokes, 800cc four strokes, and 1000cc four strokes) as well as untold changes to the technical and sporting regulations which have closed the field up enormously. But they do give an overview of who has dominated in which eras.

Rank Rider Season Races Champ pos Points Avg points
1 Valentino Rossi 2003 16 1 357 22.3
2 Valentino Rossi 2002 16 1 355 22.2
3 Marc Márquez 2019 19 1 420 22.1
4 Valentino Rossi 2005 17 1 367 21.6
5 Jorge Lorenzo 2010 18 1 383 21.3
6 Valentino Rossi 2008 18 1 373 20.7
7 Casey Stoner 2011 17 1 350 20.6
8 Casey Stoner 2007 18 1 367 20.4
9 Valentino Rossi 2001 16 1 325 20.3
10 Marc Márquez 2014 18 1 362 20.1
11 Jorge Lorenzo 2012 18 1 350 19.4
12 Jorge Lorenzo 2013 17 2 330 19.4
13 Valentino Rossi 2004 16 1 304 19.0
14 Marc Márquez 2013 18 1 334 18.6
15 Jorge Lorenzo 2015 18 1 330 18.3
16 Valentino Rossi 2015 18 2 325 18.1
17 Valentino Rossi 2009 17 1 306 18.0
18 Marc Márquez 2018 18 1 321 17.8
19 Jorge Lorenzo 2011 15 2 260 17.3
20 Casey Stoner 2012 15 3 254 16.9
21 Valentino Rossi 2010 14 3 233 16.6
22 Marc Márquez 2016 18 1 298 16.6
23 Marc Márquez 2017 18 1 298 16.6
24 Valentino Rossi 2014 18 2 295 16.4
25 Casey Stoner 2009 14 4 220 15.7
26 Casey Stoner 2008 18 2 280 15.6
27 Jorge Lorenzo 2009 17 2 261 15.4
28 Nicky Hayden 2006 17 1 252 14.8
29 Jorge Lorenzo 2014 18 3 263 14.6
30 Valentino Rossi 2006 17 2 247 14.5
31 Andrea Dovizioso 2017 18 2 261 14.5
32 Andrea Dovizioso 2019 19 2 269 14.2
33 Valentino Rossi 2016 18 2 249 13.8
34 Andrea Dovizioso 2018 18 2 245 13.6
35 Marc Márquez 2015 18 3 242 13.4
36 Valentino Rossi 2007 18 3 241 13.4
37 Valentino Rossi 2013 18 4 237 13.2
38 Valentino Rossi 2000 16 2 209 13.1
39 Jorge Lorenzo 2016 18 3 233 12.9
40 Casey Stoner 2010 18 4 225 12.5
41 Valentino Rossi 2017 17 5 208 12.2
42 Joan Mir 2020 14 1 171 12.2
43 Jorge Lorenzo 2008 17 4 190 11.2
44 Valentino Rossi 2018 18 3 198 11.0

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Tue, 2021-04-06 22:36

Man of the moment: Fabio Quartararo shone under the lights at Qatar

The other man of the moment. Pole and a maiden podium for Jorge Martin. 11 days in the desert proved fertile ground for the rookie

Worth noting that Pecco Bagnaia is sticking with the 2020 aero for his Ducati. The lower scoops are missing

KTM's steel chassis is less trellis, more steel beam. Note also the rear cylinder bank visible between the fairing and the frame

High clutch is part of the stacked gearbox which keeps the Yamaha M1 engine so incredibly compact. Note also the carbon fiber swingarm

Ironically, Covid-19 has improved communication in the garage. No more shouting to be heard over MotoGP engines; instead, everyone listens in on headsets

Still the most elegant and shapely bike on the grid: the Suzuki GSX-RR with stunning Akrapovic double-barreled exhaust

Attention to detail: speed sensor mount at the bottom of the axle, and split pin wired to the axle clamp so it doesn't get lost

Yamaha has put a lot of work into aerodynamics this year. Teardrop fork uppers mimic those on the Ducati, and work has been done on the mudguard and fairing profile

The brake disc covers are much larger, and now an integral part of the aero package. Also visible is the carbon fiber swingarm, which Valentino Rossi has been experimenting with. So far, to no avail

The KTM has been using a carbon fiber swingarm since early 2019

Suzuki's aero package remains relatively simple. But then again, their bike just works

Luca Marini looks to the future

Naca ducts and serrated trailing edges - the kind of aero detail that matters more and more

Invincible at Qatar 1, only fifth at Qatar 2. But fifth on a bad day is how you win championships

The battle for tenth. But only 6 seconds behind the leaders. That's how close the Doha MotoGP race was

The front wing on the Aprilia RS-GP is bigger and creates more drag, but the benefit from added acceleration far outweighs the top speed penalty

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Sun, 2021-04-04 01:10

"I'm so glad to hear that a lot of the riders are confused! Because I am too, I really am." Franco Morbidelli, like just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock in Qatar, has spent so long trying to get his head around the Losail International Circuit and the tricks it can play, with grip, with wind, with track temperatures, and so much more, that he is utterly lost. "I don't know what's going on. Something is going on, and I hope that whatever is going on, it will go away as soon as possible, because it is tricky to work like this."

"Consistency has been difficult this weekend because the track is different every time we exit the pits," Jack Miller agreed. "There's only one more day left here in Qatar and I'll try and make it a good one and get out of here in one piece." After nearly a month in the Gulf state, on and off, and ten days riding around the same track, everyone is very, very over being in Qatar.

First there's the weird schedule, which means the riders hit the track in the late afternoon and finish in the middle of the evening. By the time they are done, it is well past midnight before they can hit the sack. Then there's the track. The grip is too inconsistent, the conditions are too changeable, the window for race conditions is too narrow. If engineering is about changing one variable at a time, Qatar is like twisting every knob at random and hoping for the best. An idle hope in almost every case.

But not always. Sometimes all the dials end up in just the right place and something magic happens. So it was on Saturday night, when Jorge Martin put together as near perfect a lap on a Ducati as you could wish for. The Pramac Ducati rider pushed and hustled his Desmosedici GP21 around the Losail International Circuit with the kind of intensity needed to really make it fly, despite the multifarious appendages aimed precisely at preventing that.

Martin knew just how good a lap it had been, the Spaniard punching the tank and the air as crossed the line. So ecstatic was the Pramac rider that he missed his braking point for the first corner, and had to run though the gravel to get on track. Fortunately, the checkered flag had already fallen, or Race Direction may have wanted a quiet word. Instead, Martin was off to parc ferme and the press conference to celebrate a convincing pole, 0.157 faster than his Pramac teammate Johann Zarco, and 0.161 seconds faster than last week's winner Maverick Viñales.

With this pole, Martin takes his place among illustrious company. He becomes only the third rider to score a pole position in just his second race, as noted by Spanish statistics whiz Nacho González. The other two riders to achieve that feat? Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez. Only one rider has gone one better. In 2008, at this very same circuit, Jorge Lorenzo took pole in his first MotoGP appearance. Stoner's maiden pole was also set at Qatar, so perhaps there is something about the circuit.

One lap is not 22 laps

Does this make Martin the favorite for victory on Sunday? The Spaniard was keen to keep things in perspective. "Today is just Saturday. Tomorrow is the difficult part," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. But there was still a lot to learn. "Last race I learned a lot from all the riders. Try to manage the tires I think is the point where we have to work and be focused on. I think we did a great job. We’re improving in this aspect."

He was putting thoughts of victory to one side for the moment. "For sure, my target is not to win. My target is to try to be focused, try to keep the same pace the whole race, try to not make mistakes. Hopefully in the middle of the race I can have a good tire to battle for a top six. Would be super good."

Martin underlined that this was still his first year in the MotoGP class. "Tomorrow I think it’s time to be a rookie. I’m a rookie," he said. "I don’t have the pressure, not even the potential yet to win because my pace is still… In FP4 for sure we made a step, but still from these guys I’m maybe four tenths. It’s impossible to think for a win. Anything can happen in a race, but I need them to crash or maybe six or seven riders to win. It’s not what I want, for sure. I want to beat them when I’m ready."

Rookie goals

The Pramac Ducati rider was keeping his feel firmly on the ground. "Tomorrow is not the moment. Tomorrow is the time to be a rookie, try to make a good start because at the end it’s free time that I’m gaining. Try to manage the tire so at the end of the race I have a good tire. When they pass me, I think for sure they will pass me, I will try to follow them, try to learn. Maybe they make a line I make different and I can improve during the race. For sure I will improve my lines. I think this is the target now and I will try that."

The reigning champion had praise for Jorge Martin, but Joan Mir still managed to sneak a few barbs into his compliments. "Congratulations to him," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I already knew Jorge was always really fast in pole positions. In Moto3, normally they took the pole and I won the races!" A point which Mir was keen to emphasize "I already knew that he was fast in 1 lap. He’s doing a great job." Mir was also careful to point out that it was the satellite riders who were on the front row, rather than the factory team. "The Ducati riders have to be really angry," Mir said of Martin's pole.

Is Martin's assessment of his own pace accurate? Looking at the pace in FP4 – the only usable data we have, given the horrendous conditions in FP3 and the relative lack of clear race pace times on Friday, a finish in the top six or seven looks eminently possible. There appears to be a group of four riders who are faster than the rest, according to analysis by Honda BSB crew chief Chris Pike and Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison: Fabio Quartararo appears to have a slight edge, just ahead of Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco and Joan Mir.

Mir's pace is somewhat understated, the Suzuki rider having used a medium rear on his first run in FP4 to allow him to save an extra soft for qualifying and the race. The champion qualified in ninth on Saturday, a position ahead of where he started from last week. And he starts with a better feeling and more confidence. "I feel better with the front," Mir said. "It’s not the problem we are having now. It’s just improve to be strong in the qualifying. We need more, and we have to use the grip in a different way. I feel prepared for the race. I think we will do it great."

Mir's problem is still qualifying, however. And the problem was not just the bike. "I’m a lot more nervous and more stressed on Saturday than on Sunday," the Suzuki rider said. "It’s something that we have to fix. It’s not normal to be really far from our rivals in one lap. In the end if you see the pace, we are always really good and ride in a good way."

The problem is that other riders can make a much bigger step in speed than he could, Mir explained. "What is not normal is our rivals are able to improve 1.5 seconds. In Q2 I was with used tires and I made almost half a second faster. It’s something we have to work on." Qualifying and the Suzuki also need a different style. "Also, the natural style, it’s not helping me, my natural style. I’m normally really aggressive. And to make a lap time you have to be aggressive. At the end you have to be aggressive on the brakes. I have this. But with this bike you have to be really smooth and really relaxed. We have to work on it, yeah."

Repeat performance?

Maverick Viñales was the rider Mir had an eye on, the Suzuki rider said. Viñales had qualified on the front row, doing exactly what he needed to be competitive. That made him the man to beat, according to Joan Mir. "The reality is Maverick is really strong," the Suzuki rider told us. "But he’s always really strong. It’s important to see if he can manage the race as good as the last one. All the Ducatis, they are really fast and competitive. It’s really difficult to manage a race with them. It’s always not the bike you want to fight here in Qatar. But we will try to make our race, manage the best way with these guys and be close to the front."

Viñales had done well to grab a front row on his second run during Q2. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider's first run had been something of a disaster, managing only a 1'54.566, 1.3 seconds slower than the lap that would bag him third on the grid. He had stayed impressively calm on his return to the pits, showing signs of agitation but maintaining his focus.

That was down to the changes that had been made in his team during the off season, Viñales explained. He felt much more at home, and that made things easy. "I think it’s all about trust and loyalty has changed so much in the team," the Spaniard said. "Overall I know what I’m able to do. I don’t have any stress. I know that we can do great things on the track. So I understood very well that the first time attacks were not good."

Viñales had been able to express his unhappiness with the lap, without losing his focus for the second run. "I just wanted to inform the team about my feelings, about how I felt just in case they wanted to modify something for the second one. I was calm. I understand it very well. After that I just pushed at the maximum. I pushed on the correct way the bike and the lap time was there. It’s one more thing that we did good the second weekend in Qatar. That gave us the calmness if it happens again another time."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Viñales scoring back to back wins at Qatar (a déjà vu of 2020?) is his teammate, Fabio Quartararo. The Frenchman's pace on used tires in FP4 was phenomenal, and they have improved the electronics a little from last week, in the hope of avoiding the drop in tire performance he suffered last week.

"To be honest, the bike is exactly the same as last week on setting," Quartararo told us. "But we change the little bit the way of pushing in the corners. A little bit in electronics. I felt we make the step but also myself on the bike. The team helped me with the electronics." The changed had allowed him to be incredibly consistent with his pace, he said. "When I saw the lap times today I was really happy. 15 laps in row and lap 1 to 16 there was only one tenth difference on the last lap. I felt the potential was good. I’m quite happy about today. Unfortunately the qualifying was not the best. But I feel we have great potential for tomorrow."

But there is still a huge amount of uncertainty among the riders over how the race will play out. Pace on paper may mean nothing during the race, given how conditions are so apt to change. "Sincerely, it’s very difficult to predict tomorrow's race," Aleix Espargaro said. "The grip is very low. We saw the factory Ducati boys finish low in some sessions, but not fast like last week. But the Pramac are fast. The Suzukis are fast like last week. The track is very different compared to last week. It’s very slippery."

The Aprilia rider had a strong showing last week, and is even more comfortable for the second race at Qatar. "I felt a bit easier with the bike in the wind. I think we are better than last week for the race." The big question mark was the performance of the tires, Espargaro said. "Still I don’t understand. I need to talk with Michelin. We slide a lot more than last week."

The problem was, Espargaro explained, that he and his Aprilia team weren't sure whether he was sliding without damaging the tire. "I don’t understand if I am destroying the tire or if I’m just sliding and not destroying because there isn’t enough grip," the Spaniard said. "If I’m sliding and destroying the tire then we have a big problem because the spin level is a lot higher than last week. But it can mean there is no grip on the ground which means you can spin whatever you want but the consumption is not super high. This is what we need to understand tonight and let’s see with the engineers. But I think just Maverick and Fabio are the strongest but in qualifying we are similar to them. We are in the mix."

Aleix wasn't the only Espargaro brother to be confounded by the conditions, the tires, and the grip. Pol Espargaro was frustrated and befuddled by the fact that while his race pace looked strong, his one-lap pace was nowhere and seemingly impossible to improve. What made it worse was that on his first run, he had felt the tire was way too slow. And with his second rear tire, he felt a second or more faster.

Out of control

"Honestly speaking, it's difficult to say," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It's what makes me more angry, is to not control the situation, and this one, I tell you, I do not control. The first tire I put in qualifying was very bad, I could not make even one lap. I'm sure I couldn't make even a 1'55, or 1'55 middle. But then I stopped and put the second tire and I did a 1'54.4. But again, my reference changed, I went wide in the first corner, I lost two tenths in the first corner."

If he had gotten everything right, he felt he could have gotten through to Q2. "Doing a perfect lap, I think could be in Q2, but the problem was that I was not expecting how the bike was reacting with the second tire," Espargaro said. "What happened? We don't know. We don't know, and especially I don't know and this is super frustrating for me. So I'm sure tomorrow we are going to go for the race, we are going to put the race tire and we are going to be overtaking like last weekend, and we are going to be somewhere."

What Espargaro found most frustrating is why this was happening to the Repsol Hondas, but not to the Ducatis. "Why did this happen to us, and why do Ducatis improve more than 2 seconds in one lap?" He asked. "They did 1'52.7 last weekend, and they did the same rhythm in the race as me. This is what we don't understand, why they are so fast over one lap and we struggle so much."

There was a general sense of confusion about the grip. The Honda riders and the KTM riders couldn't push – in part because they need a harder front tire, the asymmetric medium proving unusable for them. Yet their race pace looks much more solid, so that is a cause for concern.

Miguel Oliveira was the best of the KTMs, but he had no obvious explanation for why he was quicker. "I just went a little bit faster," the factory KTM rider said. "There’s not really any secret. I think the job was quite similar between every rider. We tried to find different solutions in terms of setup and the four of us tried different things just to see if we gained something, especially out of front tire consumption."

After a long time in Qatar, riding around the same track, and having to deal with the difference between preheated and brand new tires, they were starting to lose their way, Oliveira explained. After nine days, we are tired of thinking," the Portuguese rider said. "It’s really frustrating, especially when we get to a weekend where we have such a tire difference between the same compounds. It becomes harder."

All this wasn't helped by the weird time schedule, Oliveira added. "As I’ve been saying before, the format itself of the weekend. We get to the first day, we have an afternoon session which is really hot. Then we have a night session which is a qualifying. So if you look at the team which is struggling a bit more and needs to try things, it’s quite difficult to do it."


Franco Morbidelli echoed that feeling. Despite having strong pace in FP4, he qualified down in tenth, behind the Suzukis. "Really difficult day and weekend so far," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "But I wouldn't say difficult, I would say really hard to understand. The feeling is bad, and it remains averagely bad, no matter what we do. What changes is the speed, and sometimes I feel a bit better, sometimes I feel a bit faster, but this feeling can go away from one run to another. So nothing is certain, and nothing is clear. We don't know what to point, what I know is the feeling on the bike is not good, and it's difficult."

There wasn't a single culprit he could point to on the bike. "I don't know," Morbidelli said in exasperation. "I don't want to dare to point at the tires, I don't want to dare to point at the shock, I don't want to dare to point at the chassis, swingarm, whatever. I don't want to dare to point at anything at the moment. Because I'm not certain about anything at the moment. So it can be any of these things."

The only thing he was certain of was the fact that the rear of the bike didn't feel good. "I'm not having a good feedback from the rear end of the bike. So it might be whatever of these things, it might be tires, it might be swingarm, it might be the shock, it might be something related to the rear end of the bike. We've been going backwards and backwards so we've been changing many things on the bike and we've pretty much gone to the last tiers of items and nothing seems to help. So, difficult situation and difficult to point to what it is."

Which brings us to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran qualified in lowly 21st, his worst starting position on the grid at Qatar since he was put to the back of the grid for scrubbing his starting position at the very first race at the Losail International Circuit back in 2004. That was the race where he vowed that Sete Gibernau, who he accused of having informed Race Direction of his misdeeds, would never win a race again. He was right.

At Qatar, it is Rossi who is not looking like a rider with any victories in his future. The Petronas Yamaha rider struggled with grip during practice, and struggled with grip during qualifying. He had no confidence and no solutions. "Very difficult today because I was never strong," Rossi said. "We try to improve the feeling with the bike with the rear but I suffer very much. I have a lack of grip in acceleration."

His race pace was also not good enough, Rossi said. "Also after some laps anyway my pace, I suffer a lot, my pace is not good. Also in the quali with the new tire I never have the feeling to be fast enough." He had been better a week ago, when had been fast enough to get through to Q2, and had exploited a tow from Pecco Bagnaia to start fourth on the grid. "Last week I was good with the new tires but we try for sure to improve the life but unfortunately I was not fast enough. Will be difficult. We have to start behind. We have to understand, try something else and we will see."

Is the end of the Rossi era in sight? Honestly, it's Qatar, so who knows? There is so much about Qatar that confounds any sense of who might be genuinely competitive once MotoGP returns to more normal tracks and more normal conditions. Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona; these are the tracks that will tell Valentino Rossi whether he is still fast enough to compete. And will tell the rest of MotoGP who is genuinely competitive in 2021, and not just a one-off fluke at a fickle and capricious track.

Drawing conclusions from Qatar is a precarious affair. Better wait for Europe before that. Jack Miller is right. Only one more day left in Qatar, so better try to make it a good one and get out in one piece.

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Sat, 2021-04-03 00:34

Plus ça change... if you put the top four from FP2 of Qatar 1 from a week ago next to the top four of FP2 from today, what difference would you see? The same four names, with only the names of Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo swapped around, the Yamaha rider now fourth instead of third, as he was last week, the lone M1 amid an army of Ducatis.

Even the times are virtually identical: the time difference between Pecco Bagnaia's second place last week and this is just 0.036. The time difference between the third-place times is 0.038. And the difference between the fourth-place times was 0.003, a mere three thousandths of a second.

Only Jack Miller really improved his time. In fact, Miller set a blistering lap, improving his time from last week by nearly a quarter of a second. That was faster than he had been in qualifying last week, though he still would have started from fifth on the grid.

The factory Ducati rider was satisfied with his days work. As well he might be: he set his fast lap after having a huge moment in Turn 15 on his previous run, when he was thrown out of the seat and forced to come straight back in again. He was not phased, banging out his quickest lap on his first flying lap out of the pits.

Different conditions

"I went out and did what I needed to do," the Australian said. "The temperature - what we had this evening - was nearly double but I still went out and did three runs of four laps just working on mapping and stuff like that. We don’t change the settings too much, we wait until the evening to change a few things. The grip feels a bit different to what we had the last grand prix but I felt that my riding was more similar to what I was riding in the test in terms of brake pressure and things like that. I wasn’t able to use that last week."

The much higher temperatures, combined with a fresh coating of sand dumped by the strong winds at the beginning of the week made conditions much more difficult. The Yamaha riders, especially, complained about a lack of grip.

"I felt pretty bad on the track today," Fabio Quartararo told us, despite having finished the day with the fourth fastest time. "I felt there was no grip on the track, and we know that the Ducati is more stop and go but the strong point of our bike is to turn, having the grip, which today was really bad and the feeling was not great. Hopefully tomorrow we will have better conditions, and we can be a bit faster, because today I was not feeling so great." He was struggling to stop the bike and suffering with chatter, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider explained.

The very different conditions made a Qatar FP2 even more complicated than normal. The window to work on bike setup is always narrow at Qatar – the first 30 minutes of FP2 are useful for assessing tire life and looking for strategies to mitigate it – before attention turns to chasing a spot in Q2. Because if you don't make it in FP2, there is no chance of matching those times in the heat of the FP3 session during the day on Saturday, and so you have to pin all your hopes on getting out of Q1. That is hard, when there are 11 other riders all with same plan, and only 2 tickets up to Q2 available.

Rubber recycling

Just to make things interesting, the MotoGP riders were thrown another curveball. The tire allocation for the second race at Qatar included a number of tires from the first race, the unused remainder of the allocation from last week. These tires have not turned a wheel on the circuit itself. But they have been put into tire warmers and racked up, ready for use if necessary.

The process of heating them up, then letting them cool again, takes the very sharpest edge off the performance of the tires. So in addition to having to thread the needle in search of the best conditions for chasing a quick lap, the teams and riders also had to balance out their tire allocation to ensure they used the preheated tires at the right moment, and saved the fresh and unused tires for their flying laps.

That was not easy. "On the tire allocation we have some preheated tires, which the performance is lower and we need to use them as soon as possible," Repsol Honda's new signing Pol Espargaro explained. "When we put them the grip level is low and is lower than the ones that have not been heated from the week before. The point is when we put them, they are very different."

For a rider who has just switched bikes, that made things much more complicated than normal, Espargaro explained. "So when we put the proper tire to make the time attack, the bike changes a little and this makes me do a lot of mistakes. It is not an excuse because everyone has the same trouble, but for example in the past with the other bike I know where to push and I had everything super clear on the way of making things. And now I’m missing these sparks of the first lap knowing the limit of the front, the rear, how to open the throttle to make the traction and I’ve been out of the top ten by two tenths."

Learning multiple lessons

That made his life difficult, Espargaro explained. "So this is a problem for me. Also I’m not performing well in this place, never performed well in this place and this makes the job even harder. Today I have not been good enough in one lap, that’s it."

Everyone faced the same problem, of course. "We all have on the allocation two preheated tires, of each compound," Espargaro explained. "So it means we use today two soft tires on the time attack in FP2. One of them was preheated and one was not. So we still have one preheated that we don’t know when we are going to put it and we have all the others in a good performance."

"But I don’t want to let it be an excuse, because this is like that for everyone," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Everyone has the same allocation but just the knowledge of the bike, it makes the others, even if they have one bad tire, they make the lap with the other one and make a good lap time. Or they put three tires on this session and have been better on the strategy."

Saving the softs

Some riders preferred to avoid the preheated soft rears altogether, opting instead for a new medium rear to get a feel for the bike. "I think we need to save the tires for the race," Fabio Quartararo explained. "And honestly, I felt really bad, because I saw Maverick that was really fast with these tires, but for me was a total disaster. I'm just using it to save the soft."

Quartararo's Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales was no fan of the mediums either, though he was at least quick with the tire. "Actually I felt really good on the track," the Spaniard said. "Honestly in FP1 and then FP2 with the medium tire, I feel fantastic. We could ride quite fast, in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low, which is an amazing pace, so I didn't expect to go that fast with the medium."

But Viñales, like others, suffered when he tried to use the preheated tires to set a fast lap. "When I went to the time attack, there were two preheated tires," the factory Yamaha rider explained. "So I didn't have the grip I expected, we were sliding a lot. So actually I think our problems were that one, that maybe it was not on the maximum performance of the bike. But luckily we were able to go to Q2, because when I saw I didn't have the feeling, I spin a lot, I said, oof, it will be difficult to go into Q2. But at the end we made it, and fantastic, I'm really happy, because the feeling was not there, but on the other hand, with a normal medium tire, I get an amazing feeling on the bike, and this is positive because the soft is better than the medium, basically."

The biggest victim of the preheated tires was reigning champion Joan Mir, though the Spaniard was also a victim of a mistake of timing by his Suzuki Ecstar team. "On these days we have to use the preheated tires from the other Grand Prix," Mir explained. "And this is something, the tire doesn't perform in the same way as a brand new one. Everyone knows this, and we just wait for the good one for the last and that's it."

That was what he and his team had done, Mir explained, but they had called him into the pit to swap the preheated tire for a new, unused rear soft too late to get more than a single flying lap. And that meant he had come up short and was out of Q2.

"In FP2, when we put the tires that were not preheated, I only had one lap, I wasn't able to make the second one. We run out of time," Mir told us. "So we missed the strategy and we cannot miss it. We don't have the package to be easily in Q2, and if we miss something then we are out. We miss Q2 by less one tenth probably, and I'm sure that in the second lap I could improve my lap time but I ran out of time."

Tough times

Mir was not optimistic of reaching Q2, given he was still struggling to get a fast lap out of the Suzuki. "I don't know what I will be able to do with this package," the reigning champion said. "It will be hard to go through Q2, but if not we will have to take risks always in the first laps of the race. I'm struggling more than ever to make a lap time. The harder I try the worse it is. Everyone is improving a lot their bikes, I see a very high level of bikes, and we have to continue improving our bike. So I'm not happy about today."

His race pace was strong, though. Mir posted a 1'54.7 on a tire with ten laps on it, a sign that the race setup was working. There were others with a similar pace on old tires, including Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Franco Morbidelli. On the sparse evidence of FP2, those riders seem to be in the best shape.

Franco Morbidelli's pace was good despite his weekend getting off to a horrible start. The Italian had not one, but two bikes start billowing smoke, forcing the flag marshals to show him the meatball flag, the black flag with an orange disc which means get off the track as quickly as possible, you have a technical problem.

The problem looked horrific, with white smoke billowing out of the rear of the bike. But Morbidelli insisted he was not concerned. "It was a good day for us. It didn’t start very well, we had a problem on two engines but luckily the problem was not so big so we will be able to use again those engines," the Petronas Yamaha rider insisted. "Anyway we decided to change one, because we couldn't afford to risk anything in FP2. So we decided to change one engine because FP2 is a really important practice, here in Qatar especially."

It was not like Jerez 2020, when engine problems for Morbidelli, along with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, were a portent of a valve failure which would dog them all season long. " I'm confident that it's not a major problem because my technician told me so," Morbidelli insisted. "It didn’t feel like a flashback of last year because last year the engine just shut down, while this year I stopped because I saw black and orange flags around the track with my number. I couldn't see or hear or feel any problem. So it is different compared to last year." There were no warning lights on his dash, he insisted.

Lucky break?

In a way, he had been lucky, Morbidelli said, that the issue had occurred in FP1 the least important session of the weekend. "FP1 is the best session that a problem can happen, you have time to react, you have time to solve it," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I would like also to thank every single guy in the crew that started working in order to change the engine as quickly as possible and also we needed to make other changes too. Huge thanks to my crew today, they really did an extra job and they did it spot on."

So what could Morbidelli's problem have been? And is he to be taken at his word, or does the problem signal problems ahead? If Morbidelli is spinning a yarn for reporters, he will get found out soon enough. Engine lists will be published after warm up on Sunday morning, ahead of the race. If Morbidelli really has abandoned two engines, it will be all too apparent then.

If, however, Morbidelli is telling the truth, what might have been the cause? The amount of white smoke billowing out of the back of his M1, together with the observation of's ace pit reporter Simon Crafar, that there were no spots of oil on the back wheel (a sign of an oil leak), but there were what looked like soot deposits on the grill of the exhaust, which keeps stones out of the exhaust and away from the valves in the case of a crash, suggest that oil had entered the engine and burned up.

How could this happen? The engine problem occurred at the end of the straight, after Morbidelli had run off onto the hard standing on Turn 1. If it were a problem caused by stress – a valve going, or a seal blowing, or oil blowing past the piston rings – it would have happened under full load, so well before Morbidelli started braking.

Taking a breather

A possible explanation is to be found in the system used to avoid oil leaks. The engine is filled with oil, and a breather pipe is fitted which exits into the airbox. The idea is that any excess oil in the engine is blown into the airbox, where it enters the engine is burned up. Normally, that would only be fumes, or the occasional drop.

But if, for example, the Petronas team had put too much oil into the engine, or not fitted a return valve correctly, or any of a hundred other small mistakes which are easily made. And if the oil had all been forced forward under hard braking, and forced up through the breather pipe and into the airbox, and eventually poured into the engine in relatively large quantities, that would have produced a great deal of smoke. And at the same time, the engine would have kept on running just fine, and no warning lights would have lit up the dash.

This explanation is certainly plausible, and covers all of the known facts. Whether it is the actual truth will become apparent soon enough. There is no hiding from Dorna's official engine usage lists.

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Tue, 2021-03-30 13:55

The fastest man in the world on his day. And Sunday was Maverick Viñales' day

Valentino Rossi, Carmelo Ezpeleta, and Jorge Viegas. The Dorna CEO and FIM President meet the boss of MotoGP

The champion had a decent race Sunday. Joan Mir started from tenth and almost ended up in second

Bad night for Danilo Petrucci. His race ended in the second corner

Ducati's shapeshifter is really obvious on corner exit. They have had to move the 'salad box' and fuel tank to accommodate the wheel.

The Aprilia really has made a step forward in 2021. The bike stayed in one piece, and Aleix Espargaro brought it home in seventh.

Keeping cool is vital in Qatar. Fabio Quartararo uses a cooling vest from Alpinestars before putting his leathers on

They weren't fast at Qatar, but the Tech3 KTMs looked fantastic under the lights. Iker Lecuona's helmet sets off the paint scheme perfectly. Now just get faster

Pecco Bagnaia came good for Ducati Lenovo squad, getting on the podium in his first race for the factory team

Franco Morbidelli's 2019 Yamaha M1. Morbidelli is still the only rider to use the carbon fiber swingarm

Like a lot of riders on Sunday night, Alex Rins was fast early and then used up his tires

Jorge Martin in a Suzuki sandwich. A lightning fast start, followed by dropping through the field like a stone

Jack Miller talks to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna. To the side, the Amazon crew filming Life at Speed, the series following the riders, hoping to emulate the success of Netflix' Drive to Survive

Miguel Oliveira expressed his irritation with Michelin for not bringing a usable front tire to Qatar

Old rider, new team, same problems

For a rider who isn't supposed to be able to battle, Maverick Viñales made some outstanding passes in the race

A front row start, but Fabio Quartararo ran out of rear tire in the race. But he came home fifth. That was a good result on a bad day

The Espargaro brothers turned out to be inseparable

What victory looks like

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Mon, 2021-03-29 02:46

The first race of the 2021 MotoGP season produced much food for thought. Too much to fit into one foreshortened evening, so here are a few initial thoughts for subscribers after a fascinating season opener at Qatar:

  • Does winning in Qatar mean anything?
  • The two ways of going fast
  • Top speeds in practice don't mean as much as you might hope
  • The transformation of Maverick Viñales
  • Winners and losers
  • Franco Morbidelli: When holeshot devices go bad
  • A tale of two rookies – Bastianini vs Martin
  • Cameron Beaubier passes his first test in Moto2

Does winning in Qatar count?

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Sun, 2021-03-28 01:48

Saturday was a day for smashing records in Qatar. First up was the top speed record, Johann Zarco hitting 362.4 km/h at the end of the front straight during FP4. Not just the top speed record for Qatar, but the highest speed ever record at a MotoGP track, the previous record 356.7 set by Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello. To put that in to context, it is 100.666 meters per second. Or put another way, it took Johann Zarco less than one second to cover the distance which takes Usain Bolt 9.6 seconds. It is a mind-bending, brain-warping speed.

It is not necessarily the highest speed ever reached on a MotoGP machine. Years ago, there were rumors of Dani Pedrosa hitting 365 km/h on data at Mugello. Nobody would comment about it on the record at the time, though engineers would tell you privately that it might be an overestimation. At the end of the straight at Mugello, the bikes are still accelerating and over the crest the rear can get light and start to spin. That cost Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their engines in 2016.

Which raises the issue with these speeds. 362.4 km/h is not a problem at Qatar. There are no grandstands at the end of the straight, so if the circuit needs more run off at Turn 1, they simply push back the wall even further. At Mugello, however, there is the small matter of a large hillside at the end of the gravel trap. Moving that to make more run off would be a very expensive exercise indeed. And Mugello doesn't have a nigh-on inexhaustible fund of gas dollars and a strong motivation to invest in sportswashing the abysmal human rights record of an autocratic regime.

Too fast

Top speed has been an issue for the people who run MotoGP for as long as I have been in the paddock. In private and off-the-record discussions, the people involved in making the rules have expressed their concerns about rising top speeds, which inevitably leads to needing more and more run off. That threatens the future of some of the greatest motorcycling venues on the planet, such as Mugello, Phillip Island, and Barcelona, all of which have top speed records in the region of 350 km/h.

And none of which have the money to modify the layout to create extra run off, and do so again every decade or so when speed barriers are smashed once again. Despite the best efforts of track designers like Jarno Zaffelli, whose Dromo Studios uses sophisticated software to calculate how much run off is needed, and how to design gravel traps to such as much speed out of crashing machinery as possible and prevent them from hitting barriers.

It is an intractable problem. When officials got worried about the top speeds the first generation of 990cc MotoGP bikes were doing, they reduced engine capacity to 800cc. It took the smaller capacity bikes half a season to match the lap times and top speeds their bigger predecessors had achieved. Dorna found a "silver bullet", limiting the bikes to four cylinders and a maximum bore of 81mm, after the MSMA rejected the notion of a rev limit.

The thought was that physics would limit engine speeds to a maximum of around 16,500 rpm before pistons would start to separate themselves from connecting rods and drive themselves into cylinder heads. That massively underestimated the ingenuity of motorcycle engineers: I happened to once accidentally see the revs and gearing table for a satellite Ducati a few years ago. Even in 2017, the Ducati was revving to 18,000 rpm. And the engines are lasting for a couple of thousand of kilometers, and now hitting over 360 km/h.

A matter of opinion

The riders are divided on whether such speeds are a danger. "If we touched 360 km/h here it’s difficult to think about Mugello at 360," said Pecco Bagnaia. "I think it’s not more dangerous because we are seated on a very futuristic bike and everything is the best on our bikes."

Maverick Viñales, a more experienced MotoGP hand than third-year man Bagnaia, took a similar view. "I think now the result of safety, also with the Michelin tires, overall I think it’s quite safe," the factory Yamaha rider said. "As Pecco said, we will see in Mugello. If we are reaching now here in Qatar this top speed, in Mugello I don't know. It will be difficult to control the bike, but anyway I think everything is really safe. The track is very wide, and also as I mentioned the tires are working well. So it will be no problem."

The most experienced MotoGP hand of all viewed it another way. Valentino Rossi expressed concern over the rising speeds in his two decades in the premier class. "For me already after 330 km/h is very dangerous," Rossi said. "So 330 km/h or 360 km/h is already incredible number! I think that all the motorsport fans are very excited for these numbers, because it's impressive, but for sure this speed is dangerous."

There are no easy solutions. Even with the engines frozen for 2021, the manufacturers have found more speed thanks to aerodynamics. But as speeds continue to rise and run off becomes an issue at more and more tracks, at some point, it is an issue that will need to be addressed.

Getting a tow

Of course, the only reason Johann Zarco hit 362.4 km/h is firstly because he was in the slipstream of Enea Bastianini down the straight, and secondly because when he pulled out from behind the Esponsorama Ducati, he found himself going so fast that he missed his braking point and ran on into the gravel at Turn 1.

Both were necessary ingredients in reaching that speed, the Frenchman said. "Two things, the slipstream plus also braking late. You have to do the both things together." But they had an inkling that they could reach some phenomenal speeds. "We were thinking this 360 km/h was possible, but I didn't expect 362 km/h. So happy for it, because it's always a special moment."

The other reason for Zarco to be pleased with that top speed is he knows that it will make his life a good deal easier during the race on Sunday. " I see that even if I brake very early I have a good opportunity in the race that I never had before to see how I can control the speed in the straight to stay easily behind the other riders. That's the target," Zarco said. He can save his tires by sitting in the draft of slower riders, then at the end of the race, unleash the extra speed of the Ducati GP21 and leave them all for dead.

Energy saving scheme

It's not just tires he can save thanks to the extra speed, the Pramac Ducati rider explained. The additional speed meant he didn't have to push so hard to keep up with his rivals. "When I'm following someone during the race pace, or what I could see in FP4, I don't need to be at more than 100%, which was necessary last year just to follow, to give the best," Zarco explained. "So then I was getting tired and then using the tire too much to do all my best to stay. Now when I am pushing at this limit, it's to go pretty fast, but when you are a bit slower, then everything comes easier, and that is what I was looking for, and it seems like it is coming."

Zarco's top speed was not the only record to be broken. In the end, eight riders managed to beat Marc Márquez' outright lap record of 1'53.380 at the Losail circuit. Pecco Bagnaia was the first to slip under it, with a lap of 1'53.273 on just his second flying lap. By the end of the session, he would be joined by Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Johann Zarco, Franco Morbidelli, and Aleix Espargaro, on Yamahas, Ducatis, and an Aprilia.

Bagnaia himself didn't just break Marc Márquez' lap record, he went on to shatter it entirely. The factory Ducati Lenovo Team rider put together a near-perfect lap on his final run to post a time of 1'52.772, smashing Márquez' record by six tenths of a second and becoming the first rider to lap the Losail International Circuit in under 1'53. Everyone believed that a 1'52 had been possible, but few expected that barrier to be breached quite so comprehensively.

Bagnaia's tutor also profited from the Ducati rider's incredible speed. Valentino Rossi found the tail of Bagnaia on his flying lap and followed him round to set his fastest ever time around the Qatar circuit, lapping under the time of his arch nemesis Marc Márquez.

Rossi acknowledged the help he had had from Bagnaia, but said it had not been prearranged. "With Pecco we don’t have a deal but we see in the track, the first time I was in front and after the second time he was in front and continued to push."

Bagnaia backed that up, telling the press conference that he was returning the favor after getting help from Rossi during the test. "I knew that he was there, but also in the first test he was in front of me. This was not planned. When I saw him behind me, I pushed at the same ,because I prefer to ride alone without anyone in front when I push at my 100% because I can make my lines and I can push more, I feel." It was something which we could see repeated, Bagnaia said. "For sure, we will speak because this strategy worked today. Maybe in the future we will do it again."

Giving a tow to Rossi hadn't impeded Bagnaia from taking pole, and the Petronas Yamaha rider was magnanimous in acknowledging the achievement of Bagnaia, a scion of the VR46 academy. "I have to say great congratulations for his first pole position, he ride very well and it's the perfect way to start his season."

Rossi may find himself with a strong starting position, but his race pace still leaves a lot to be desired. During FP4, the Italian was a second or so off the pace of the man at the other end of the second row. Johann Zarco, despite qualifying sixth, appears to have the best race pace for Sunday, running in the mid 1'54s on tires with a lot of laps on them.

Pace vs speed

Indeed, comparing the pace of riders from FP4 with their qualifying positions on the grid paints two very different pictures. Johann Zarco, Maverick Viñales, and Fabio Quartararo posted very fast times on used tires, and start from sixth, third, and second respectively. But Miguel Oliveira, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Franco Morbidelli were also quick, and Oliveira will be starting from fifteenth on the grid, the Suzukis from tenth and ninth respectively, and Morbidelli the worst Yamaha starting from seventh. Aleix Espargaro is also a factor, the Aprilia rider running high 1'54s on tires with about half race distance on them.

Testing used tires is always important, but at Qatar, it is absolutely crucial. There is a reason that Andrea Dovizioso has done so well at Losail in the past: the Italian was a master at slowing up a race and managing his tires, before taking advantage of having more tire left than his rivals.

Sunday's race will follow a similar pattern. The rider with the most tire left over at the end will have the best chance of victory. The problem comes in working out the best way to get through the 21 laps which precede the final lap. Do you make a bolt for it early on, try to open a gap, and then hang on in the second half of the race? Or do you sit behind the other riders, and hope they burn up their tires more trying to drop you than you are doing in trying to hang on to their tails?

"Here the race is very long so strategy you can think in two ways," Maverick Viñales told the qualifying press conference. "You can think to push the last ten laps or the first ones. Anyway, the last ten laps here have been always very critical for the tire."

Teammate Fabio Quartararo underlined the importance of a good start and a strong pace in the opening laps. "Now my goal is to make great the first laps, a great start. I think that we need to be aggressive from the beginning. I’ve been doing some overtakes in the test that I think we are quite good, so I think that the first five laps will be so important and then we will see."

Knowing where to overtake, and how it affects the tires, would be key to having tire left at the end of the race, Viñales reiterated. "We need to understand how to manage the grip during all the race and how to overtake without burning the tire. We want to try to be smart. It depends how the start goes. You want to choose one plan or the other."

For Alex Rins, starting from ninth, making a plan which might work is even trickier. The Suzuki is notoriously bad at qualifying, so the third row was no disaster, but neither was it what Rins had hoped for. "Not fantastic but not bad," was how Rins characterized it.

Rins' hope is that the closeness of the field will open up options for him at the start of the race. But with only FP4 as a real guide to race pace – the heat of the day makes FP3 a waste of rubber and gasoline in terms of race setup – it was hard to know where his rivals stand.

"I tried to make a bit of a plan with Manu, with my engineer, and it was difficult, because the pace is still not clear from the other guys," Rins said. "I think it will be very difficult to make all the race in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low. So for sure we need to make a strategy, because if we push a lot from the beginning, we will destroy the tires." And if that plan didn't work? "If this plan doesn't work, Plan B is going full gas!"

Teammate and reigning champion Joan Mir is in a slightly less optimistic mood, having struggled in braking for most of practice. "We are not fast enough," Mir said. "I was struggling a lot all weekend to stop the bike. I’m really on the limit on the brakes and going into the corners. First we have to fix that. And then if you look at the lap times of everybody, I think first I was not really consistent on my lap times, because I was making one sector good, one not, I was over-trying, I was too aggressive probably. That made everything much worse."

Jack of all trades

After dominating the tests, qualifying went much worse for Jack Miller. The factory Ducati rider will start the race from fifth, the middle of the second row. But he brushed off any suggestion that this was a disappointment. "I think the expectation was from you guys," the Australian said. "P5 is relatively fine for me. The Ducati is a rocket ship off the start line for sure I’ll be In the top two by turn 1. I’m not too stressed."

Miller was happy enough with how his day had gone. "Pretty happy with my performance. I was under the lap record. Just wasn’t able to put it together on the second tire." That was not an insurmountable problem, however. "The race is tomorrow. We’re in a fantastic position. For sure I want more, but I’m not disappointed. I would be if I was on the fourth row, but I'm on the second row, under the lap record. But I definitely felt I had more in the tank. It’s making me even more eager to start tomorrow’s race."

Miller wasn't worried by the incredible pace the Yamahas had shown, he said. "Look at the past years," he pointed out. "The Yamaha is always fantastic with pace, with lap times, with everything. We’ll see how much of improvement they’ve made. But look back at the past. Dovi was doing 1'56s sitting in the back of the pack for a fair bit of the race and worked his way to the front."

The Australian was also hoping the wind would be a factor. "We’ll see what the conditions are tomorrow. It will be windy. Hopefully there will be a head wind. We’ll see how much sand there is. The sand will create even more tire wear. We’ll have to manage them as best as we can. It’ll be like Phillip Island. You can’t push to the limit, otherwise you can’t finish the race."

Whatever the weather on Sunday, the race is almost certain to happen, given that the wind is not set to die down until the middle of the week. But a race that was already expected to be something of a strategic battle is likely to become even more of a game of cat and mouse. Picking a winner? There are too many confounding factors to expose a clear favorite. But if Johann Zarco ends up on the top step of the box and taking a debut win, that would be perhaps the least surprising result from a wide range of possibilities.

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